How and Why Digital Tools Will Transform Farming
True transformation takes time. Contrary to popular belief, Apple and Amazon did not conquer our consciousness or our wallets overnight. While the pace of innovation in today’s society has accelerated at what feels like breakneck speed, many industries are still in the early stages of applying data science and advanced computational technologies to current practices. And while agriculture is one of the industries in the early stages of leveraging these new technologies, farming is indeed beginning to undergo a dynamic digital transformation.
Some commentators have been critical of digital agriculture’s potential and believe the vision for the future does not align with the value currently being created. It’s fair to say concrete examples of value creation spurred by digital tools is somewhat sporadic and initially may not be entirely tangible, but one only needs to look at historic examples of transformational innovations in agriculture for a reasonable forecast for the future of digital farming.
Taking a Historical View of Technology Adoption
In the early 1900s, the common perception was that corn yields would never rise above 30 to 40 bushels per acre. Hybridization was the new technology at the time, and the science was largely believed to be at its limit. At that time it was difficult for a farmer to see how any new technology could expand hybrid corn yields beyond what was currently being observed in the field. We now know this couldn’t be further from the truth, as a multitude of agronomic innovations, such as the advent of new fertility, crop protection and biotechnology tools catapulted the industry forward.
The early 2000s produced another example of new, transformational technology that changed the agricultural industry forever. With the emergence of fast and affordable DNA sequencing technology, the concept of genetic marker-assisted plant breeding moved beyond concept into the realm of reality. However, many plant breeders pushed back – firmly standing by a belief that marker data, and the algorithms developed from this large and precise data set, could not improve the critical hybrid advancement selection process that sat at the heart of global corn breeding programs. A computer could never do what they do. The process was just as much art as it was science. Today, multiple global breeding programs are run by computers, and the outputs from these systems have proven to be better on average than the historical processes driven by plant breeders alone. The trick was figuring out how to optimize the interaction between the breeders and the computer-based algorithms.
These examples illustrate the inherent difficulty we have in seeing beyond the observable outcomes that exist at any given point of time within a system. This is particularly true when transformational technology begins to disturb an existing, well-established process. In the U.S. today the average corn hybrid yield is 175 bushels-per-acre, far from the perceived peak of 30 to 40 in the early 1900s. And, we know the genetic potential of corn is actually well over 500 bushels, driven in part by advanced marker-assisted breeding technologies.
Transformation Straight Ahead
I firmly believe digital agriculture, driven by the application of data science to new and ever-evolving data sets, will transform the future of farming in more profound ways than hybrid corn and biotechnology changed farming in the 20th century. Digital agriculture can catalyze new opportunities to improve productivity, manage risk, and farm more sustainably – all of which we will need to help feed the unrefuted 2 billion new inhabitants our planet will have by 2050. I urge us all to look beyond what is tangible and observable today and continue to dream up the ideas and innovations that will be the new reality for farming in the future. I have no doubt that history will repeat itself.